The Front Page

The whole reason to live a block from Times Square, right on Theatre Row, is to be able to go to a show when you’ve got a spare night. This weekend, after six months in our new (still un-housewarmed) apartment, we finally did it.

The snowstorm probably helped. On an average Saturday night, getting cheap tickets for any Broadway show* is a challenge, even if you’re a local. In the middle of a snowstorm, you’ve got a much better shot. In the mid-afternoon, I trudged over to the Broadhurst and picked up a couple of standing-room tickets to The Front Page for less than half the cheapest seat.

This production is an interesting phenomenon. The cast is mostly movie and TV stars: John Goodman (The Big Lebowski), Nathan Lane (The Birdcage), John Slattery (the boss from Mad Men), Holland Taylor (the mother on Two and a Half Men), Christopher MacDonald (the villain from Happy Gilmore), Dann Florek (Lt. Crager on Law and Order), and Dylan Baker (the one-armed professor in Spider-Man 2 and 3). And those are just the ones I personally recognized; the rest are Broadway royalty and more actors from TV shows like Mad Men, etc.

The play is both a slapstick comedy and a cutting satire of the news business. While the scene is perfectly of its time, the comedy and criticism are timeless. We see the stratification of the news business into literary, mainstream, and tabloid. We see the corrupt relationship between politicians and the politically motivated press, days before a racially charged election with one side fearmongering about an invented bogeyman. We see the pride and subservience of reporters talking to their sources and editors in countless hilarious monologues (making good use of a roomful of old-fashioned telephones).

The night we went, the performances were mostly amazing. Nathan Lane is particularly fantastic against John Slattery’s straight man. John Goodman is undeniably himself. Dann Florek’s stage voicing seemed a little forced, but then he always had a very distinctive cadence. I’m personally a big fan of Christopher MacDonald’s performance; his background comic relief was the realest performance of all.

The Front Page is only playing for about three months, including previews. I suspect a cast like this is awfully busy, and I feel just a little bit lucky to have gotten a chance to see them.

I think that’s how you’re supposed to feel.

*other than Cats, for which we actually won the ticket lottery but skipped anyway.

NYPD

The NYPD is running subway ads recruiting new officers. In huge all caps letters, each poster says

IT’S YOU WE WANT

. Each ad features a smiling attractive young person, evenly covering genders and ethnicities, wearing a pastel t-shirt with a slogan on it in white text. The slogans are

  • SERVICE ORIENTED
  • HONESTY IS MY THING
  • all about Respect
  • COM PASS IONATE
  • READY TO SHOW COURAGE

Rather than be critical, I will simply say that I hope they succeed in hiring many new officers with those qualities.

LA LA LAND

Saturday morning I was in LA. Sunday evening I was watching LA LA LAND, a dreamy musical about LA (whose title therefore qualifies as a triple-entendre — very impressive).

Having just seen or at least learned about all the sights of LA, it was a bit disorienting to see them again onscreen. I had to remind myself where I was at least once.

The movie opens with an ancient studio title sequence, from the very earliest color films. That sets the target: this is a movie in pursuit of Old Hollywood, and everything is a reference. Then the opening sequence starts … and it’s people stuck in traffic on the freeway. That sets the setting: a vision of modern LA grounded in prosaic reality. We pan … and then people burst out of the cars and into song and dance. None of them are famous faces, but as the camera continues its long single shot, we see more and more of the surroundings, eventually revealing that we are on an actual LA freeway, on a curving ramp high over the interchange below, with actual traffic flowing and yet our traffic jam, complete with dancers on the roof of every car, stretching nigh unto infinity.

That sets the method, the mood, and the topic: high-budget hijinks, playful surrealism, song, dance, and a celebration of the young performer trying to make it big in Hollywood. Mix in a dose of bittersweet ambiguity, and you have a perfect recipe for Oscar bait.

Actually, watching it in my Manhattan movie theater, that wasn’t what I thought of first. My first thought was: when is it coming to Broadway?

As musicals go, it’s less musical than most. Screen time devoted to music is low, even lower if you subtract performances that are literally occurring within the plot. The singing sounds like an amplified whisper. Music is emotional, but our screen couple are cautious people, who share their feelings only quietly, tentatively, privately. I expect that this is entirely deliberate; Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone could probably be virtuosic if that’s what was needed.

Oh yeah, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. One of the old Hollywood references in this movie is in its construction as a “star vehicle”. Maybe you could make a movie like this around unknown actors, but it wouldn’t be the same. Watching Emma Stone fail an audition, or Ryan Gosling playing deeply reluctant keytar in an 80s cover band, is funny instead of sad.

For them, at least, we know it’s a happy ending.

Friday Night in LA

Friday night, I was in Los Angeles for one day, at a conference. And the conference was over by lunchtime. So what to do with myself, in LA on a Friday night? A DJ night at a dance club? An underground art gallery opening? An improv standup show by Kevin Smith? A performance of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” entirely in Spanish?

Oh, sweet, an astronomy lecture and stargazing at Caltech!

In the end I didn’t even go to the stargazing. After the lecture (about the ALMA 66-antenna array, sharper than Hubble and in mm-wave!), four of the grad students and postdocs set up shop at the front of the room and ran a “stump the experts” style Q+A.

It was pretty fun.

A few pictures here.

FUSIONS

It was Saturday night. We could have gone to a movie, but hey, we live in Manhattan! Anyone can go to a movie! Let’s go to this thing.

FUSIONS dissects through music, clowning, and video, the impact of the technology on the nowadays’ society. The humorous and absurdist dysfunctional daily escape of the characters into the realm of reality TV shows, movies, the internet and social media, place their lives into a virtual reality, raising questions about the future of the human relationships.

I expected a combination of modern dance, atonal music, and some weird distorted video projections. Perfect for 10 PM on a Saturday night.

Instead, it was more like Sophocles. Characters with occupations but not names stood alone before the audience, delivering monologues on the nature of life as an actor, nerd, clown, or, um, woman, basically. The woman is distinguished as being “obsessed with reality TV”, which is sort of a bizarre idea at the end of 2016. What’s a TV?

The clown is an actual clown, who does a whole bunch of very impressive clowny tricks. Also everyone goes by their real names, or rather, the characters all take the actors’ names.

After the monologues, a very simple, surreal story develops involving a love triangle of sorts. The clown is the straight man, representing the audience in his desire to muck around and generally not have anything to do with these other characters. The others are pencil-thin single-issue archetypes, more concept than character.

The Actor spends most of the play telling the audience they should go see a movie instead of a play, and enumerating all the various ways that watching and acting in movies is superior to watching and acting in plays.

In this case I suppose he may have been right.

Mystic Pizza

So there was this movie called Mystic Pizza, in 1988. These days it’s mostly famous for having had Julia Roberts in it before she was famous. Also, it turns out it’s a real place, sort of. The screenwriter had pizza at the real Mystic Pizza and was inspired to write a story and set it there. Then they made a film set near the actual restaurant to shoot the movie, and then the restaurant completely renovated itself to look exactly like the film set, and doubled in size to handle all the extra traffic.

Anyway, movie or not, Mystic Pizza is reasonably located to be a lunch stop on the way from Boston to New York, so that’s what we did. Turns out, if you can manage to find parking, it’s a darn good pizza at a fairly reasonable price, plus a full menu of local Italian joint stuff. Even on a peak travel weekend the wait for a table was short, maybe 10 minutes, and service was reasonable.

They’re really obsessed with the movie. The place is covered in stills from the movie, posters from the movie, and monitors showing the movie on a loop. They also wear and sell t-shirts that were invented for the actors to wear as uniforms in the movie.

I burned my mouth, which I guess is an endorsement of a sort. So if you go, pace yourself.

The Clock

I watched The Clock at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from about 4:45 to 6:30 on Friday. My thoughts on The Clock:

The experiment works in part because scenes with clocks in them are usually frenetic. In a movie, the presence of a clock usually means someone is in a rush, and so most of the sequences convey urgency.

It’s often hard to spot the clock in each scene. In less exciting sequences, this serves as a game to pass the time. In many cases the clock in question is never in focus, or is moving too fast for the viewer to notice. The editors must have done careful freeze-frames and zoomed in on wristwatches to work out the indicated time.

The selected films are mostly in English, with a fair number in French and very few in any other languages. This feels fairly arbitrary to me.

Scenes from multiple films are often mixed within each segment. It seems like the editors adopted a relaxed rule, maybe something like: “if a clock appeared in an original, then a one minute window around the moment of appearance is fair game to include during that minute of The Clock, spliced together with other clips in any order”.

The editing makes heavy use of L cuts and audio crossfades to make the fairly random assortment of sources feel more cohesive.

I swear I saw a young Michael Cain at least twice in two different roles.

Some of the sources were distinctly low-fidelity, often due to framerate matching issues. I think this might be the first production I’ve seen that would really have benefited from a full Variable Frame Rate render and display pipeline.

I started to wonder about connections to deep learning. Could we train an image captioning network to identify images of clocks and watches, then run it on a massive video corpus to generate The Clock automatically?

Or, could we construct a spatial analogue to The Clock’s time-for-time conceit? How about a service that notifies you of a film clip shot at your current location? With a large GPS-tagged corpus (or a location-finder neural network) it might be possible to do this with pretty broad coverage.

Fantastic Movies and How to Make Them

I’ve read the first three Harry Potter books so far, just enough to see that there are some weighty themes lurking beneath the surface. Then on Friday I went to see Fantastic Beasts, the new movie that kicks off another wave of the franchise.

Considering only the setup, Beasts could be taken as a similarly childlike tale. An accident-prone zoologist and his bumbling sidekick get themselves into a whole lot of trouble on a trip to New York City, and only manage to escape thanks to a little help from his lovable animal friends. There’s plenty of slapstick comedy, dressed up in the very best modern CGI, and even a perfectly chaste love interest. Kids movie.

Except … there’s more going on. Our British visitor encounters an American (magical) government that

  • Is structured as a gigantic secretive bureaucracy
  • Forbids miscegenation (with non-magical people)
  • Routinely implements the death penalty without effective due-process protection
  • Has been infiltrated by crypto-Nazis

It’s hard not to hear our British screenwriter’s voice in our British hero’s judgmental astonishment, and it’s hard not to see American society and government past and present being politely skewered by proxy.

I think this combination of light comedy and deeper commentary is a winning formula.